Monday, September 06, 2010

Touffar, "Habr 'Awaraq"

Touffar are a terrific rap group from Ba'albak, Lebanon (I had thought they were Palestinian, but it seems not). I particularly like this song. Unfortunately, I don't have the time (or adequate skills) to try to work on translating and making sense of it, or other Touffar videos (there are lots on youtube). Here's an article in Arabic on the Touffar phenomenon (again, lack of time prevents me from further work.) So this note serves as (a) an expression of my fondness for the song in question (b) a kind of placeholder and (c) hopefully an incitement to someone who knows the dialect well to translate the song into English. The lyrics of the song, helpfully, are present as subtitles in this video.

The first I heard of Touffar (or Tuffar), was from Angry Arab, who wrote this on Nov. 9, 2009:

There is a movement that needs to be covered more in the press. It is the Tuffar movement in the Ba`albak region. Some [c]overage of the movement suffers from prejudices and from stereotypes about them as criminals and drug dealers. Even an article in Al-Akhbar a few months ago did not deviate from that norm. Tafar is being very poor, or penniless. Tuffar characterizes a movement associated with the Ja`far clan in Ba`albak and champions the poor and neglected in the region. It is Shi`ite but not with Hizbullah and not with the Amal movement, the two Shi`ite political groupings in the region. Many in Lebanon blame (often unfairly) the car theft and drug dealings on Tuffar. Tuffar is a lawless movement that champions rebellion against the government, and is more political than often assumes. A supporter sent me rappings by Tuffar which speak to their sentiments and feelings and political expressions. There is this one and this one. Listen carefully to the lyrics. By the way, the Lebanese accent of that region is my favorite accent from Lebanon. It is close to Fusha and I like how they stretch words: so jurd becomes jooord.

And after a little searching, I found a link to an article by Josh Wood on Touffar from Esquire Middle East. You can download it here. I excerpt below some interesting bits.

The disintegration of the legitimate economy means cannabis cultivation, gun-running, banditry and petrol smuggling have become a way of life for many in the [Ba'albeck] region. The illegal economy is complicated by the presence of a highly complicated system of clan politics – which, when combined with a general population that has more guns than the armies of many small nations, often leads to violence.

“Touffar” means outlaws, a reference to the men and women who have resorted to arms to protect their livelihood and land at all costs, both against the Lebanese government and others who wish to impede. It is a culture in the Bekaa resulting from absolute desperation, which the band points to in their music. The other side of the coin is the pride people feel to this region. Their loyalty to the land and to resistance are also major themes in Touffar’s music. This has helped create bridges between their music and unlikely listeners, such as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Party of God...

In Beirut, I finally meet up with Touffar at a currently hip “communist” bar in Hamra that serves up economysized beers at bourgeoisie prices, yet still attracts members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine along with plenty of Che-obsessed youths wrapped in kaffiyas.

Nasserdyn has long hair and a skinny face and enthusiastically talks about the band with good English. The author of most of the band’s lyrics, Jaafar, is slightly bearded and more reserved than Nasserdyn, butting-in at random moments of inspiration. While they are hip hop artists, the guys aren’t wearing bling, baggy clothes or stiff baseball caps. They opt instead for strikingly conventional t-shirts and shorts, making it hard for me to spot them as I walk into the bar. Together, Nasserdyn and Jaafar make up Touffar. They’re hanging out with a member of Katibe 5, a well-known local Palestinian rap group that emerged from Burj al-Barajneh, Beirut’s largest Palestinian refugee camp. The Palestinian refugees, numbering up to four hundred thousand in Lebanon, have a natural kinship in poverty and disenfranchisement with many from the Bekaa Valley.

Jaafar and Nasserdyn cut to the chase and lay out the essence of the group: “Touffar is the way of life that is outside of the law,” Nasserdyn explains. “We are the people the government wants to put in jail, and we don’t want to give ourselves up — we’re like outlaws.” Jaafar and Nasserdyn deny ever running into trouble with the law or engaging in any (really) illegal activities themselves. But they say that they took on the persona of outlaws to give the region a voice. They acknowledge that their spirit of resistance does in fact make them outlaws in the eyes of many, such as the Lebanese state...

Living as outlaws in the Bekaa, according to Jaafar, is “a way of living, because we don’t have another choice.”

“If you want to live, if you want to eat, you have to do certain things,” adds Nasserdyn.

From their brevity – and the angst in their lyrics – it seems that they might actually be the real deal: their way of life is something real and inescapable, not some lifestyle choice or teenage rebellion...

For Jaafar and Nasserdyn, rap has always been about resistance – an out to vent frustrations, to subvert the government and to bring about change. While they insist that their sound is not inspired by anybody in particular, they speak of older American rap music, written by frustrated African-American youth in the ghettos. This was long before before American rap turned more towards lyrics about dollar bills and swimming pools filled with girls in bikinis.

“Rap music is fight music,” explains Jaafar.

While the band repeatedly chastises those who leave the Bekaa, forced to move to Beirut or emigrate abroad due to the poor economic situation, it is ironic to find them in Lebanon’s capital. They assure me that they are only here for their concert and to complete their education and that they still live in Baalbek.

“If there was a university in Bekaa, the government would make sure that it was s***,” says Nasserdyn bluntly.

In the batch of songs they are currently recording, emigration to Beirut by Baalbek’s youth plays a key role. For Touffar, those who abandon the land of the Bekaa and give up the fight to protect the land, are racked up as traitors to themselves and their home. While they understand these motives, the band looks down on those from the Bekaa who take up menial jobs in Beirut (“they deserve a slap in the face every morning,” says Nasserdyn) and also the rogue clan members who have taken to armed robberies in the Lebanese capital.

Beirut bothers them, visibly...

Their song title “Al-Wasakh al-Tijari” or “Commercial Filth” is an Arabic reference to downtown Beirut’s commercial centre, which is called al-Wasat al-Tijari. The lyrics relentlessly attack the development of the city centre by Hariri’s company Solidere and question who benefits from these ventures.

“Our music is not just about Baalbek,” Nasserdyn tells me. “It’s about the people who robbed Baalbek to create this place [Beirut] for kings from Saudi and the Khaleej [the Gulf ].”

“They want to turn Lebanon into a big hotel… And we say that Lebanon isn’t a hotel or a brothel.”

This anti-commercial establishment sentiment spreads further than lyrics. Far from 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Trying” model, Touffar says that they’re not in the business for the money. Given that they’ve refused to record an album onto CD thus far (they spread their songs virally through YouTube and from person to person on mobile phones) this claims might be valid. In their first headline concert in Beirut, the band charged a paltry two dollar entrance fee; just enough to cover overhead costs. If they feel that they have successfully brought about change, they suggest, perhaps they’ll stop rapping. If they start feeling that their music is doing little in the way of change, another path might be in order.

“Right now we are fighting with our lyrics. Maybe later we will fight another way to get our freedom and liberty.” says Jaafar “The real resistance is by bullets.”

Ali* al-Yaghi sits, like he does everyday, in a roadside café next to a grassy park in the relatively upscale Baalbek neighbourhood of Ras al-Ain, gently pulling on a Marlboro Light. A former hash and arms dealer, twenty-year-old Ali is now training to become a Hezbollah fighter and hopes to fight and perhaps become a martyr during the next war with Israel. He differs immensely from the arak-swilling socialist intelligentsia in Beirut, yet he is just as enthusiastic supporter of Touffar and a personification of the group’s lyrics.

“Ibn Baalbek ma yamot” he says upon being asked about the band, before breaking out into an impromptu performance of one of their songs. “The son of Baalbek does not die” — a motto of Touffar that epitomises the spirit of resistance held by the residents of the Bekaa.

We’re sitting under a large portrait of the turbaned and bespectacled Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in yellow chairs...Ali sits with his mobile phone on the table, alternating between Touffar songs and videos of Hezbollah fighters ambushing Israeli patrols...

Ali embodies the Bekaa tragedy that Touffar raps about. After finishing secondary education, he quickly realised that there were few opportunities to work. Like many, he chose to go illicit – selling hashish and guns until he was arrested by Lebanese internal security forces over a year ago. Hezbollah bailed him out. Then they handed him an American-made M-16 and he began training to join the Party of God’s military wing.

In an environment where work is nearly impossible to come by, even for the educated, the modest stipends of Hezbollah’s militia become an alluring factor for those not scooped up in the Bekaa’s illicit economy.

“Only Hezbollah saves Baalbek.” he says. “The only other work is hashish. If the government took care of Baalbek, then people wouldn’t grow hashish. Right now, all we do is sit and wait.”

The café owner looks up from his counter. “Look at Beirut: Saad Hariri p***es money!” he says scathingly, attacking the opulent reconstruction of downtown Beirut.

“We [in Baalbek] love Lebanon, but the state does not love us back. There is only Hezbollah for us here.”

Hezbollah and Touffar are odd bedfellows. While the rappers’ music obviously does not resonate heavily with many in Hezbollah, the message of resistance does. Similarly, Jaafar and Nasserdyn’s self-proclaimed secular attitudes clash heavily with the Islamist oriented mission of Hezbollah, but at the same time, they are fighting the same fight and thus enjoy a heavy following by those who identify with Hezbollah. The first line of their song “Madina al-Shuhada” (“City of the Martyrs”) gives light to the attraction: “The road to Jerusalem begins in the city of the martyrs (Baalbek).”

Yet Touffar is not a group of Hezbollah rappers. Nor are they socialists or gangsters or any other adjective that could be thrown in front of them. They are young, they are angry and they are very proud of their hometown, a city that was once an axis of empires, now fallen into disrepair. They tell me not to expect to see them on MTV or to see their albums on the Billboard charts. They just want to get their message out, they want to show the realities of life on the ground in the Bekaa and make their lives and the lives of those around them just that little bit better.

Again, inshallah someone will do more on this. If you check out the Touffar vids, you will see lots of shots of hashish plants. The Beqa'a Valley, where Ba'albak is located, is renowned for its hashish. (It's where "Lebanese blonde" comes from. You know, of course, the Thievery Corporation song by that name.) Conditions of production are pretty rough.

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